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Full text of "Romance of the straw bonnet"




Romance of the Straw Bonnet 



BY 
BRIAN SULLIVAN 



My Wife Beverly 



Romance of the Straw Bonnet 



BY 
BRIAN SULLIVAN 



PUBLISHED BY THE WHIPPLE HOUSE 

WESTBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS 

1986 



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ARTIST RENDERING OF THE STR *W WORKS 



ROMANCE OF THE STRAW BONNET 



Woman's pride and woman's ingenuity laid the foundation for 
one of the great industries of this country. The making of straw 
headgear in A merica was probably the only business of the women, 
for the women, and by the women in the early nineteenth century. 
Men may complain that women have invaded their realm of 
business, but in this case it was man who entered woman's sphere 
and shared in her profit and glory. 

Somebody made the first bonnet, but who? Read the "Essay on 
the Manufacture of Straw Bonnets," printed in Providence, Rhode 
Island, in 1825, and you will feel sure that it was Mrs. Naomi 
Whipple, wife of Captain John Whipple. Mrs. Whipple, as was 
customary, assisted her husband in his business and was in the habit 
of receiving a consignment of English straw bonnets from a 
Providence importer. In 1797 she conceived the idea of making a 
bonnet. With the help of a neighbor, she unraveled a piece of braid 
to see how it was done and produced the desired result. She showed 
other women and soon was employing them to make bonnets, which 
she not only supplied to her customers, but shipped to New York, 
where they sold with the imported articles. 

The summer of 1799 saw Providence young ladies going away 
to boarding school wearing new straw bonnets of their own 
manufacture. One of these was Sally Richmond, who went to the 
Wrentham Academy. Sally taught the ladies with whom she 



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Romance of the Straw Bonnet 

boarded the process of braiding straw. The Wrentham women 
passed the knowledge on to the women in Franklin, the next town. 
Before many years, both towns had entered to a considerable extent 
into the straw business, doing the work in the homes. 

For thirty years Providence believed that Mrs. Whipple was the 
pioneer woman in straw work. Then a rival came on the scene. Mrs. 
Betsy Metcalf Baker, at that time seventy years of age, said that it 
was all a mistake, that she herself, and not Mrs. Whipple, was the 
one who had made the first bonnet. At the age of twelve she had 
lived in Providence and almost daily as she passed the Whipple 
shop gazed longingly upon the straw bonnets displayed in the 
window. The only way for her to attain one was to make it. She 
experimented and succeeded. It was she, she said who taught Sally 
Richmond. 

The hundredth town, Westborough, Massachusetts, put in still 
another claim. They tell of Betty Fay, the charming daughter of one 
of the town's leading men. Betty, a leader in an aristocratic circle, 
resolved, not only to have the finest hope chest, but a dower of hard 
money. She decided to make bonnets to sell to her friends and to 
send the surplus to Boston. Staid matrons were shocked; they 
considered it beneath her social position to engage in the business, 
yet Betty persisted. When the youngest son of the Whitney family 
asked her to marry him she told him that her business took all her 
time and that he would have to wait. He waited three years, then, 
early in February, 1765, Eli Whitney and Elizabeth Fay were 
married, and in time bcame the parents of Eli Whitney, the inventor. 

Betsy Fay Whitney made bonnets and hats and trained her boy, 
who early on showed the inventive talents which made him famous. 
At ten years of age he made the hat block and stick pins to hold the 



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Romance of the Straw Bonnet 

bonnets in place. He had taken apart his father's watch and put it 
together again while the family was at church and also made a 
violin. Two years later when the boy was twelve years old, Betsy 
Fay Whitney made her last bonnet; in August 1777 she was laid to 
rest in the old burying ground. 

Early in 1777, Breck Parkman opened the first retail store in 
Westboro, selling bonnets and hats made by Betsy as well as other 
members of the Whitney family. In 1805 his son, Charles, was 
graduated from Harvard and entered the business. He early saw the 
demand for straw bonnets and hats and soon constructed a factory. 
He began the search for a competent manager and in 18 10 a young 
man by the name of Bayley Bird was making hats for the trade in the 
little shop. In 1 834, Bird bought the shop and operated it until his 
health failed, then sold it to John and Jesse Brown. 



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Employees of Sewing Hall No. 2. National Straw Works 

Straw braid had begun to be imported from China and Italy and 
the business began to require greater capital. A number of 
individuals operated the business in a small way until Lucius Bates 
and James Parker hired an old boot shop and soon were employing 
50 hands in the factory and about 250 women were sewing hats and 
bonnets in their homes. This business established by Bates and 
Parker in 1863 later became the Westboro Hat Company. 



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Romance of the Straw Bonnet * 

In Massachusetts, the straw business grew rapidly, then began 
to decline. The chief reason for this was over-production. Bonnets 
had been sent all over New England and to New York, where they 
were shipped to the Middle Atlantic and Southern states, until 
practically every woman had a bonnet. Then rich women again 
bought imported leghorns, so that they might be distinguished from 
the wives of less successful men. There seemed no help for the 
business until the bonnets wore out, or the styles changed. 




Women Working in Sewing Hall No. 2. National Straw Worksf 

This new enterprise among women produced undesirable 
results. Girls began to feel their independence. Instead of assisting 
with the house work, spinning and weaving, and doing lighter farm 
work, they spent their time braiding and sewing straw. They began 
to disdain the product of the hand loom and were ashamed to be seen 
spinning. Many girls were growing up in ignorance of knitting and 
weaving. There were bad effects of this new work on the health of 
the girls. Long hours in a sitting posture without exercise brought on 
many ills. The girls themselves felt the lack of exercise and to 
obviate this, and to give them an occasion to wear their new clothes, 
balls and dancing schools sprang up. To those they wore their 
thinner dresses instead of homespuns and contracted colds and 
consumption. 



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Romance of the Straw Bonnet 

This braiding business affected the men, also. They hated to see 
the women lose their dependence. Moreover, if the girls were always 
braiding, the only way for the men to be with them was to braid too, 
and that had a tendency to make the men effeminate. 

Economists feared that unless the straw bonnet business was 
stopped there would be a depletion of rye and a famine would 
follow. 

In spite of all those dire predictions, the braiding of straw 
became a regular industry in practically every home in the towns in 
southeastern Massachusetts. Most farmers grew rye straw. About 
the middle of June, before it ripened, the women gathered the best of 
it into bundles. This they soaked in hot soapy water and left on the 
grass to dry. When thoroughly dry the straw was cut at the joints into 
eight to twelve inch sections and made into bundles. The bundles 
were again put into hot soap suds. Then came the bleaching. In the 
bottom of a barrel, which had been made air tight, was placed a pan 
of live coals over which sulphur was sprinkled. Suspended over the 
sulphur fumes was the wet straw. For the very earliest braid, the 
straw was used whole, but soon the women devised a small 
instrument to split the straw. The next process was braiding. 

All the women braided; so did the children. By the time the 
children were ten years old their wt stint" was ten yards a day in some 
families, in others, five yards on school days and fifteen, on days at 
home; most people had a special homemade rule by which to 
measure. 

All these stories may give the impression that the girls did little 
hard, or regular work. They did work hard, and in the best days of 
the business, say in the eighties and nineties, earned at piece work as 



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Romance of the Straw Bonnet 

much as six dollars a day in the height of the season. Six dollars then 
had a good purchasing power. Even in the days of braiding and 
sewing in the homes the women worked steadily and produced 
results. Many a woman with her housework, and three or four small 
children to look after, earned a hundred dollars in the winter sewing 
straw at sixty-two and a half cents a bonnet. Think of making thirty- 
six hats of fine straw in eight days. It was done, though it meant 
sitting up until midnight. 

The many stories told about the girls does not mean that the men 
in the business were unimportant, or uninteresting. Men designed 
the headgear, made the bonnet blocks, bleached the straw and the 
finished hats, did the sizing, dyed the braid, pressed the hats or 
bonnets, inspected them, packed them, and shipped them. 

The Boston and Worcester railroad had opened a section of rail 
into the center of Westborough. Previously all bonnets 
manufactured were taken to Boston by horse drawn vehicles. The 
designers had an easy time in those days, as the manufacturers 
would get together at the beginning of the season and adopt three or 
four shapes and as many kinds of braid, and start to manufacture. 
At the end of the season, any hats left over were sold at auction. 

It was about this time that the bonnet shape began to change, the 
Shakers began to introduce a bonnet that was made of palm-leaf 
straw rather than of the narrow chip braid, and were trimmed with a 
short silk cape and ribbon that tied under the chin. These straw 
bonnets became a part of the standard wearing apparel for 
Shakeresses and many of their customers throughout the nineteenth 
century. 



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Romance of the Straw Bonnet 

In 1 864, Chauncy Mitchel began making Shaker hoods in an old 
boot shop near the center of town. Associated with Mitchel was 
George M. Smalley, well known for many years in the straw hat 
world. He formed a partnership with Willard Comey in 1 868. They 
had started to make velvet hats when one morning a young New 
York salesman came in selling straw braid for an importing concern. 
His name was Henry O. Bernard and he had come to New York 
from Richmond. The men passed judgement on each other and 
omitting details, they were soon in business together. The next year 
they built the great wooden shop on Main Street, later added two 
enormous wings and in a few years the National Straw Works was 
one of the largest in the world. 

The two men were different, one sound and careful, the other of 
highly nervous temperament, of bulldog tenacity, ambitious and 




View of National Straw Works Complex, East Main Street, Westborough. Massachusetts 
(Left to Right) The National House for Boarding, Sewing Hall #2, and The Straw Works 



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Romance of the Straw Bonnet 

when he decided to act, no leash was strong enough to hold him. 
Smalley withdrew from the partnership in 1875. 

In 1878 Bernard erected a large brick building adjoining the 
wooden one which nearly doubled the capacity of the plant and for a 
few years the straw hat business assumed enormous proportions. The 
National Straw Works was employing more than 2,000 hands and 
the Bates Company had nearly 400. Great storehouses were 
erected, for at that period, Paris nor London designers had any 
influence on the styles worn by American women. Styles or shapes 
were relatively few and the women wore what was designed in the 
whittling rooms of the factories so that quantities could be stored in 
advance of orders. 

The shipping records indicate that some 600 cases in one day 
were shipped, about 18,000 hats. The average output per day 
during the busy season was 1 2,000. Hats and bonnets were shipped 
all over this country and Canada, as well as Cuba, Central and 
South America. England had its industry too, but the hats were 
sewed in the homes of foot- powered machines, it has been said that 
our industry was more than twenty-five years ahead of old England, 
France and Italy in the manufacture of straw hats and bonnets. Such 
is the value of Yankee ingenuity. 

In the early 1 880' s a marked change in the demand.was noticed. 
Bernard saw that reorganization was necessary and so the H.O. 
Bernard Manufacturing Company was formed. Many of the 
employees of the National Works became stockholders in the new 
concern. Their offices were at 525 Broadway, New York. 

In 1887 Henry K. Taft, vice president and manager, died and 
the great mainspring Bernard was weakening, having long been at 
high tension and sought diversion. With the same energy and fire 



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Romance of the Straw Bonnet 

which he had early put into industry he went into thoroughbred 
horseracing and became known throughout the horse world. When 
he came back to Westboro to make his home, he fitted up a building 
long used by former employees. It was remodeled and filled with 
elaborate furnishings and art treasurers from the old Bedford 
Avenue home in Brooklyn. He spent his remaining years driving 
about the country roads of his adopted town and fishing in the 
nearby lakes, dying in 1916. 

A visiting Englishman looking over some of our rocky New 
England pasture lands, once asked Daniel Webster/' What can you 
raise in this barren country?*" "We raise men/' was the answer. So, 
it may be said of Westboro — she had matured men who have 
succeeded at home and whose industry and foresight and daring 
made her name far bevond the confines of Massachusetts. 




THE STRAW WORKS 



CREDITS 

Mrs. Robert Bailey, Upton, MA, Research and Photographs 

Mr. Philip Kittredge 

Mr. Glenn Parker 

Westhorough Public Library, Local History Room 

Westborough Historical Society 

Kathy Delisle, Cover Illustration 

Westborough Printing